Corruption isn’t hard to find in American government. The following scandals are all from just this year:
- Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) announced his resignation after misusing federal funds and receiving legally questionable gifts from campaign donors.
- Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has been indicted on corruption charges for potentially improper advocacy on behalf of a major donor.
- Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber (D) resigned in February in the midst of a corruption and influence peddling scandal involving his fiancee.
- Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) is facing a lawsuit alleging he violated the state’s open meetings law.
What this should make clear is that unethical or corrupt behavior isn’t specific to one party or one state, it’s an endemic problem.
It’s also not surprising that many of these scandals involve campaign donors. The gradual deregulation of campaign finance has led to a world in which candidates and elected officials must raise increasing amounts of money in order to compete. That means spending more time around the people who fund campaigns: the wealthy. Politicians become accustomed to a certain lifestyle. If they aren’t rich already (many are), some take legal shortcuts in relationships with rich friends.
That’s visible in the Menendez and Schock scandals as well the gift scandal that eventually sent former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) to prison. A cumulative $120,000 in improper gifts from a big donor to the governor and his family cost him a once promising career.
The scandals also highlight the need for mandatory disclosure.
Rep. Schock resigned after a series of incomplete or misleading financial disclosure reports came to light. Before the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 made this kind of disclosure mandatory for members of Congress, it was much harder for the the public to monitor the use and potential misuse of public funds. “It is a testament to the reforms of the past 40 years since Watergate that Schock was snagged by his own paper trail,” Politico’s Todd Purdum wrote.
Salomon Melgen donated $700,000 during the 2012 cycle to Majority PAC, a group that gave close to $600,000 to Sen. Menendez’s re-election campaign. This was allegedly the impetus for Menendez to exert undue influence in the Medicare billing process on Melgen’s behalf. We only know about that large contribution because Majority PAC discloses its donors.
Unfortunately, many other outside groups do not reveal their donors. Not only is big money overwhelming the democratic process, but we don’t even know where a lot of the cash is coming from.
This is why President Obama should answer the call of more than 50 organizations and issue an executive order requiring full disclosure of political spending by business entities receiving federal government contracts. It would be a useful and effective tool to combat corruption in government contracting and shine a light on the vast amounts of money impacting our elections.
The influence of money in politics is a complex problem requiring a multi-faceted solution. Current political realities make many of the necessary reforms difficult to achieve. But the President can take action on this unilaterally.
Transparency is a necessary pillar of a functioning democracy. This recent wave of scandals has made clear we need all of it we can get.
Office: Common Cause National